Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Fight Game : A Psychological Perspective

With the recent passing of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, the role fighting plays in the game has once again become the focus of attention. Much of the talk and debate has centered on the enforcers who slug it out on a consistent basis. This is only natural, taking into account each of the above noted individuals filled this position for their respective clubs.

Since the beginning of time, fighting has been considered an important part of the NHL game. Each team, filling a roster spot with a known "tough guy". Then, there is the unwritten code - applicable to everyone who steps onto the ice surface - when challenged, you drop the gloves. The only players who appear to have a pass are the superstars. The argument being they are worth more in action, rather than sitting in the penalty box.

The stigma and ramifications of not accepting an invitation to duke-it-out are enormous. In the case of teammates, they begin to question aspects like dedication to the overall pursuit of winning and having a fellow soldier who doesn't protect their back. With an opponent, one might as well sew a giant target on their jersey. A player who refuses to fight back, often is faced with a deluge of nasty stick-work and other tactics of intimidation. These are not only physical assaults, but verbal lashings. Taunts like coward and chicken become common when addressed by the opposition.

If a player takes a beating, he sucks up any pain and hides lingering after affects. He is expected to lick his wounds and prepare for the next battle. To voice any objections would be a death sentence. It would result in a demotion to the farm, with little hope of making a return to the big league. The general manager, making an example of how timid play and refusal to engage in fisticuffs is dealt with.

This certainly was the state of the game during the Original Six era. With a limited amount of jobs at the National Hockey League level, there was fierce competition for employment. Any sign of weakness, either physical or mental, wouldn't be tolerated by management. Thus,  players kept their mouths shut and bottled up any emotional impact.

For the past few days, both the front page and the sports section, along with television and radio, have covered the issue of fighting in hockey. As I followed the debate in the media, one contest played in the Original Six era wandered into my thought process. It was a battle, literally, between the Chicago Black Hawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. The game, played on December 7, 1963, was broadcast on Hockey Night in Canada. Some 38 years later, on September 30, 2001, it was re-broadcast as the inaugural Leafs Classic Game on Leafs TV. The alumni guest for the replay was Carl Brewer. His insight and comments were amazing to watch. Further information relating to the December '63 match-up can be found in the book, The Power of Two - Carl Brewer's Battle With Hockey's Power Brokers, written by Sue Foster with Carl Brewer.

First, some background on the game in question. I propelled my VHS player into fast-forward mode to reach one particular segment. Late in the final period, with Toronto gaining a 3-0 advantage over Chicago, an ugly incident took place. With Stan Mikita leading a rush into the Leafs zone, he and Reggie Fleming crossed the blueline. At this point, Fleming speared Leaf forward Eddie Shack in his gut. Shack immediately went down and was unable to get back on his skates. The first player to come to his aid was Carl Brewer.

With Mikita and Fleming planted in the penalty box, Bobby Baun of Toronto approached Chicago's side of the sin-bin. He reached over and started to attack Fleming. Baun was unable to fully reach his target and the linesmen were able to steer him away from the area. Referee Frank Udvari hit Fleming with a game misconduct and sent him to the Hawks dressing room. As Fleming departed the box, he was confronted by another Leaf defenceman, Larry Hillman. Next on the card for the Chicago enforcer was a return tilt with Baun. As things got out of control, both benches emptied, resulting in a full-pledged brawl.

As the players paired off, Carl Brewer and Murray Balfour became dance partners. As they tangled with each other, their confrontation resembled a wrestling match, as opposed to a boxing fight. As the dust-up progressed, they were intent on holding onto their partner with both hands. Balfour, managed to pull Brewer's sweater over his head. For a brief moment, they were separated, but met up again inside the Leafs blueline, near the Toronto bench. Once again, they grabbed each other and a pushing contest developed, with neither player letting go. As Balfour was pushing Brewer backwards, he was attempting to land some punches. Being a short distance from the Leafs bench, Balfour appeared to be guiding Brewer to the open door. Once they reached the door, Balfour gave one final push, sending Brewer tumbling backwards and landing on his back. Balfour fell on top of Brewer, thus pinning him down. Getting the upper hand, with Brewer in a prone position, Balfour unleashed a flurry of punches. Watching the tape, I counted at least six unrestricted blows striking Brewer.

After a long delay, the penalties were announced to the gathering in Maple Leaf Gardens and the television audience. With play underway, Bill Hewitt refrained from making his call, so everyone at home could hear the punishment for the combatants. Balfour was assessed five-minutes for fighting and a game misconduct. Brewer went unscathed and returned to the ice shortly after play resumed.

Just another tussle between two hockey players - right?

The full impact this physical encounter had on Brewer would be discussed by him as he chatted with Leafs TV host Brian McFarlane. Quotes from the interview appear in Sue Foster's touching book on her partner, Carl Brewer.

This fight left an indelible imprint on my mind, although nothing really happened. I was coming back from a broken arm and couldn't use my left arm.
 I never recovered; I was never the same player after that. Psychologically, it destroyed me. I really wanted to get past it, but I was unable to do so, to make the quantum leap.

Thanks to Sue Foster, the reader gets additional insight from notes made by Carl Brewer relating to the incident on December 7, 1963.

 Murray Balfour - he ruined my life because our fight shamed me. I forgive myself for being afraid. I was afraid because Murray caused it. Yet I was brave, I played the games, but lived with the destructive fear. I could have confronted my fear; I did not. My fear was unnecessary.

Can you imagine if Brewer voiced these comments back in 1963? He would be on a bus headed to Rochester faster than a Bobby Hull bullet zooming past a goalie.

As we enter into a new phase of discussion/debate on the fighting issue, Carl Brewer's story should become part of the official record. The talented defenders words voiced over the footage of his nightmare confrontation with Balfour. It would make a powerful image. In particular, the moment when he is being backed-up towards the Leaf bench. Brewer, hanging on for dear life, trying to keep his head low to avoid punches. The violent spill backwards. A skilled player who just wanted to play the game.

In the case of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak, the common denominator for their demise appears to be depression. And these guys were designated policemen, similar to Reggie Fleming and John Ferguson in the Original Six era. Tests on Fleming's brain, revealed he suffered from degenerative brain disease, much like enforcer Bob Probert. This disease is known to cause depression. Another form of mental stress can fester out of fear and a desire not to participate in an activity. How many of us would enjoy resolving a dispute with our fists - on or off the ice? Or, being constantly challenged to put 'em up. The torment and anticipation could send one off the deep end.

It would be interesting to view the results if the NHLPA polled their members on this one simple question - Should the National Hockey League ban fighting? You have to wonder how many of them share the same psychological perspective as Carl Brewer.

Isn't it about time the National Hockey League learn something from it's past in regards to this subject?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I played with Carl. He was probably, physically, the strongest guy on the team. He never fought,though, was good or malicious with his stick, but didn't drop his gloves. I've seen even tough guys traumatized when losing a fight or being made to look bad in a fight. I'm not sure fighting or killing is as natural as TV portrays it. Witness battle fatigue in wars. An "enforcer" either has to win most of his fights or just be stubborn enough not to care, a la Paul Stewart or Bryan Watson. I've even seen guys develop the flu after a game because they did poorly in a fight. A good body check or hip injury is far worse than a beating in a fight, but the psychological damage is much worse in a fight. They get hesitant to fight again and the fear is similar to someone not wanting to dive off a 30 foot diving board because he crashed the previous dive. Each game you try to erase the fear with a fight you initiate, but secretly you hope to contribute defensively or offensively so you don't have to fight. There used to be an unwritten law in hockey that the coach never asked you to go fight someone. I concept was unsaid, unsaid, except you may end up out of the lineup.
    Nuff said. I need to go fight with my landlord over the rent. Curt Bennett


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